Category Archives: Life and big stuff

Parent, Adult, Child – what can the insights of psychotherapy bring to alumni relations and fundraising?

Alumni fundraising is a bit different. Of course with any kind of fundraising you’re going to get angry responses, it goes with the territory. But sometimes those of us who work in the fundraising offices of universities get responses so out of proportion to the nature of our appeals, that it does make us sit and wonder what on earth is going on?

Before I became a fundraiser, I was a couple of other things. I was a semi-professional singer, but also, when I realised I wasn’t on track to become the next Peter Pears, I started training as a counsellor and psychotherapist.

In the course of my training I came across the ideas of Eric Berne, and Transactional Analysis, or TA for short. And so, many years later, as I started reading these appeal responses full of anger and a personal sense of grievance that we had dared to ask for a donation it began to occur to me, “Oh, these are classic crossed transactions!”

So, what’s Berne’s insight, and how can it help us understand our alumni better?

Well, Berne’s hypothesis is that there are three ego-states which we all move between, more or less fluidly, moment to moment in our daily lives:

The Parent, which is the internalisation of ideas, beliefs and values we have taken from our parents, families and other authority figures in our lives.

The Child, which is the internalisation of our own childhood self as we processed the input from our parents, families and other authority figures

The Adult, a more neutral ego-state, that corresponds to our more rational decision-making persona

Each of these ego-states affects the others, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on our own personal histories.

For example, someone who has experienced love, affection and prizing of themselves in their childhood is likely to have internalised a Nurturing Parent ego-state, and a corresponding Free Child.

Someone who has experienced the opposite is more likely to have internalised a Criticising Parent and Adapted Child.

The Parent and Child ego-states can have profound effects on the ability of the Adult ego-state to function freely, or even at all.

The nature of our ego-states lead to 4 basic ‘life-positions’ that Berne suggests underpin all our subsequent transactions with others:

  1. I’m OK and you are OK.
  2. I’m OK and you are not OK.
  3. I’m not OK and you are OK.
  4. I’m not OK and you are not OK.

We may hold one of these positions consistently in all our dealings with the world, or we may switch between them in different circumstances.

I hope it’s starting to become clear how the university – alumni relationship may be a bit more psychologically loaded than donor – charity relationships in the wider sector?

Because if we accept Berne’s hypotheses, it would seem to naturally place us and our alumni in a Parent – Child ego-state relationship, dating back to their time as students.

Have we been perceived as Nurturing parents – or Criticising, even Abandoning, parents by our alumni?

Because, if Berne’s structure is valid, this may govern whether, when we subsequently attempt to reconnect, we receive a joyful Free Child response in return, or a sullen and angry Adapted Child jab.

And how could we work with this better in the way we communicate with our alumni?



Filed under Fundraising, Life and big stuff, Universities, University fundraising

An affirming flame – RIP Robin Williams

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

“Days” by Philip Larkin

And so another of my teenage heroes, Robin Williams, has left us – and already the ‘sad clown’ archetype is being rolled out once more, with commentators professing to find it a mystery, that those with the talent to make us all laugh so often have difficulty doing the same service for themselves.

It is no mystery to me. The twin poles of drama, comedy and tragedy, exist as two of our attempts to answer our fundamental unanswerable question – why do we live? What are our days for?

We live in a time where we know more than we have ever known about the ‘how’ of our lives.

But the ‘why’ still stubbornly eludes us.

And each one of us in our own particular way must find our own accommodation to its absence.

We can seek to ignore it in the minutiae of ordinary life, drowning it out with the ‘what now’ and the ‘how’.

Or we can seek the certainties religions seem to offer us. Or seek power over others, or a life in their service. (But unless we are prepared to tread these paths with unwavering humility the consequences of these choices can be terrible, as we know from history and from the events unfolding around the world as I write).

Or we can pour our uncertainty into an art, or a craft, into science or philosophy, and seek to make, shape and write our own versions of answers – tragic or absurd, sublime or banal, precious glimmers of insight or failed speculations.

So it is not so hard to see that a comedian – one who shows us all the absurdity of our lives and invites us to laugh – may feel the uncertainty underlying their art rather more than those of us who are privileged to enjoy it.

For all of us, whether we consciously acknowledge it or not, life, and our continuance in it, is a question of faith. Not as it is generally understood in the religious sense – because that is so often tied to a set of beliefs that can be badly, tragically, wrong.

But a faith expressed by Walt Whitman, which Williams’ character quotes so memorably in Dead Poets Society:

“…’what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.”

But this faith, like all faith, is fragile.
One in four of us will experience depression within the course of any year, when our biochemical and philosophical accommodations with our existence fail.

All any of us can hope, amid the uncertainty of our lives, is to try and act as another great, dead, poet, W H Auden, suggests in 1 September 1939:

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

RIP Robin Williams, o Captain my Captain. You showed your flame for as long as you could, and the verse you have contributed stands as your memorial.

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Filed under Film, books and TV, Life and big stuff